The Kid I Didn’t Kill (Ellie Herman)

Taken from “About” in Herman’s blog:

My name is Ellie Herman.  If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog.  I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….

As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher.  From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart.  My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.

I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English.  I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge.  My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley.  My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday.  Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks.  We live in Los Angeles.

Posted on September 26, 2013

 

I once ran over a student in the parking lot.  Gio was standing in front of my car, waving, grinning and doing a little hopping dance in apparent joy at seeing me, which made no sense because only an hour earlier he had brought my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe.  Obviously, I threw him out of class, though he did not go easily, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him.  The sight of his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield was like a red flag to a bull.  Enraged, I gunned the engine and squashed him flat.

Okay, I didn’t.  I honked, smiled, waved and drove around him.  But in my imagination, I ran him over.  Gleefully.  Vengefully.  Repeatedly.  On several other occasions, I mentally strangled him, usually during class when he could not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook or when he shouted out irrelevant, annoying questions or when he announced loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to Gio all week.

 Gio was that kid.  That kid!  Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3% of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50% of my energy. That kid!  The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the other students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.

 Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid.  Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines.  In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues.  I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus.  I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention.  Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which really sucked because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems.  Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.

These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were.  They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did.  Here’s what they always were: smart.  Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire schoolful of people completely batshit crazy.

Did they come from terrible home lives?  It would be simplistic to say so.  Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues.  But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that cause them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily.  In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle.  Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.

These turnarounds actually happen.  I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life.  There is nothing on this earth more miraculous—I simply have no other word for it—than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.

But.  A turnaround like that takes years.  Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises.  Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years.  Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.

And it doesn’t always happen.  It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values.  The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround.

But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable.  For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared.  I’ll never know what happened to them.

I’m thinking of Gio today because in Cynthia Castillo’s class, I saw a boy who was that kid,  acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands.  And I braced myself instinctively—a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid.  I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who once called me a fucking bitch right to my face, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June.  I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.

 I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts of rage, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year.   By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate.  After graduation, though, he floundered.  I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic.  He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.

Last year, my father died after a brief illness, and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed.  One evening around 5:30, Peter walked into my classroom.

I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm.  He was the last person I wanted to see.  But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour. “What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.

“I heard your dad died,” he said.  “I just wanted to give you a hug.”  For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bearhug.  “Okay,” he said.  “That’s it.  You probably wanna be alone.”  And then he left.

I think of the Rumi quote: “out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”

I think of my most difficult students, and how that field might be where I need to meet them.  Maybe learning involves a growth in knowing but also at times an embrace of not-knowing, of accepting, even in the absence of evidence, that a human connection is of infinite, indescribable value.  “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.”  I remember.  I hope to get there.

 

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20 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

20 responses to “The Kid I Didn’t Kill (Ellie Herman)

  1. Ellie nailed it. In my brief time teaching, especially this past school year, I lived these moments too often. So much so I sought respite from teaching algebra (where mostly freshman struggle behaviorally with their transition to high school) this coming school year. I broke under the stress and strain of too many students like Gio, Fernie, Tiffany, and Peter feeding off of each others challenges in a classroom, destroying the learning environment and nearly everything around them, metaphysically speaking.

    The irony is I became a teacher with the (naive) hope of helping just these students but now realize I, as a teacher of many, am unable to salve the deep wounds of the few in any material manner as the staccato nature of their outbursts were too difficult to predict or to address while directing the learning of dozens of others.

    Each of the following quotes from Ellie’s piece resonate deeply with me.

    Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.

    “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.” I remember. I hope to get there.

  2. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    Re-blogging this latest post from Larry Cuban as well…

    Ellie nailed it. In my brief time teaching, especially this past school year, I lived these moments too often. So much so I sought respite from teaching algebra (where mostly freshman struggle behaviorally with their transition to high school) this coming school year. I broke under the stress and strain of too many students like Gio, Fernie, Tiffany, and Peter feeding off of each others challenges in a classroom, destroying the learning environment and nearly everything around them, metaphysically speaking.

    The irony is I became a teacher with the (naive) hope of helping just these students but now realize I, as a teacher of many, am unable to salve the deep wounds of the few in any material manner as the staccato nature of their outbursts were too difficult to predict or to address while directing the learning of dozens of others.

    Each of the following quotes from Ellie’s piece resonate deeply with me.

    Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.

    “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.” I remember. I hope to get there.

    • larrycuban

      Dave,

      Thanks for your comment on Ellie Herman’s piece and also for re-blogging it.

    • EB

      This story had me until the Lord of the Flies incident. In what world is it acceptable to allow three students to hijack the education of the rest of the class? When I was in high school, I had a hard enough time mastering the material in my math classes even though there were no behavior problems.

      In a rational world, students who disrupt would be removed to a therapeutic environment (with education as a part of it) until they can control their behavior. Not sure what that therapy would look like, because I’m not an expert in adolescent motivations. And that’s part of the problem; teachers do have insight into teen and pre-teen behavior and the stresses they may face at home or out in the world; but we are NOT trained counselors.

      Let me add that there have been a couple of these chronic disrupters in my extended family. Nice young men, basically, who hated the school environment because it felt so confining, or because their interests lay elsewhere. But constantly in trouble. Being in a classroom environment was clearly an instigator of their misbehavior, even though the basic cause was elsewhere.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Jane. Drawing from my experience and research studies I have looked at, “chronic disrupters” in one class may not be “chronic disrupters” in another room with another teacher. Surely, some of what Ellie Herman describes comes from the content and pedagogy (and school rules) that occur in the room. And some of it comes from students who bring to school issues that they cannot easily cope with emotionally or rationally. It is more complicated than simply removing the “disrupters.”

      • Thanks so much for this thoughtful response. I totally agree that removing three students with chronic behavior problems to a therapeutic environment would be ideal. The unfortunate reality is that in today’s schools, there is no such environment. Due to budget cuts, counselors and assistant principals have been cut. There is no office or setting where kids like this can cool down or receive help. You can’t just send them into the hall because they wander around making problems for others. At many schools, you are actually not allowed to send kids out at all. At mine, you could send for the assistant principal, but only in an emergency and only briefly.
        In my visits this year to schools across Los Angeles, I visited schools that were having success with restorative justice for kids with serious behavior issues. Still, these RJ programs take a great deal of time, often months or years, and kids still need to be in class. It’s not our job or our right to make a unilateral decision to deny them an education because we feel they are bothering others.
        When people talk about wraparound services to meet the needs of kids who are acting out from the trauma of chronic poverty, this is what they’re talking about. Right now at most schools, those services are not available. I wish they were. But they are not cheap. And most Americans resist “throwing money” at schools in this way because “data” indicates that money doesn’t help. I would argue that ill-spent mismanaged money doesn’t help.
        But yes, I could not agree more that troubled students deserve far more therapeutic help than they are getting and that everyone’s needs might be served better if students with serious issues had a separate setting where they could receive the intensive care they need.

      • EB

        Larry, I agree that content, pedagogy, and school rules can have a lot to do with children’s behavior. Even a teacher’s demeanor can have a big impact. Grumpy teachers don’t have calm classrooms, while positive (but firm) teachers often do. Students often control themselves better for charismatic teachers than for low-key ones. And so on.

        I’m not advocating for removing disruptive students (those who are disruptive in every classroom, not just one or two) and ignoring them; I’m advocating for assigning them to a therapeutic environment. Like Ellie, I’m well aware that the funding for such programs is difficult (I actually think some of it should come from the health care system rather than school systems, but that’s another story . . . ). But I have seen such programs work, and be a great benefit to students who finally found some inner peace and the equilibrium to start to learn.

        I also think that today’s movement towards not using out-of-school suspension as a disciplinary measure is GREAT. In-school alternatives are far better, and offer the opportunity address the student’s issues.

        Our high school also offers a substantial work-study program (not just for disruptive students; for any student who wants it). Getting to spend part of the day in an environment that is not saturated with teen issues has been a big benefit to some students.

      • larrycuban

        I think you covered the points that you, Ellie, and I made very well. Thank you for comment, Jane.

  3. Pingback: Bureaucracy Run Amok | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  4. Ann Staley

    ellie – Your portrait of “the disruptor” is so candid and remarkably true to my experience with – as you say – most often boys. I can look back at my 40 years in classrooms and name them. One of “my boys” (and this was 30 years “in.” I really thought I could handle anything and work it out.) was so smart, virulent, and disruptive that I sent him to my principal every day for 4th period English. One day, early into “the experiment” I went to the women’s’ restroom and heard and saw my Principal yelling and gesturing at this disruptor, who had pulled, even the principal’s “strings” until there was havoc. I remember thinking I could see smoke coming out from below the door! At sixteen he dropped out. I hope he’s somewhere other than jail, that he’s fallen in love and raising a couple of young boys. There has to be karmic payback at some point, right?

    Now I’m going back to read what others had to say.
    Ann

  5. Three in one class would be enough to end a career, no matter how earnestly begun! And in Algebra, no less. In THAT class I might have become a disruptor myself. Instead I cried every night while trying to do my homework, to understand “why”? Algebra? What for? But it was the post-Sputnik years and everything that was advanced was science and math! Not my forte, for sure. Anyway it took a graduate level statistics class at Stanford, with a teacher who chose an incredible book (We began by rolling the dice 100 times to “set up” our random data bases.) Somewhere in that ten week course, I got it! An equation is a sentence!!! Well, I was 45 years old at that time, but felt as though I’d had a heavenly experience.

    I’m enjoying the conversations here. Have never been on a blog before. But this one is very interesting to me. Thanks to you all.
    Ann

  6. deborah ann corod

    This is a great blog…it strengthens my belief that teaching is an act of faith. The more I am encouraged to continue my studies and to be in full time teaching.

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